STOUGHTON — A series of menacing e-mails between Rabbi Barry Starr and a Milton man suspected of blackmailing him reveals the hardball tactics the alleged extortionist used, threatening to expose the rabbi for having an alleged sexual relationship with a teen described as the man’s brother.
The e-mails, contained in court documents released Tuesday, are the first of hundreds the two traded between December 2011 and April 2014, a source familiar with the investigation said. Starr may have ultimately paid as much as $480,000 to buy the man’s silence, according to court documents.
The documents show that authorities discovered e-mails on an office computer the rabbi used at Temple Israel of Sharon, where Starr presided for 28 years and built a national reputation as a leader in Conservative Judaism.
The rabbi, who resigned this month, also engaged in “extensive” browsing of the classified websites Backpage and Craigslist, where he viewed advertisements for female and transsexual escorts, according to documents related to a search warrant that were released in Stoughton District Court.
A lawyer representing Starr has described the rabbi as a victim. The alleged extortionist, making his first public remarks in a brief interview Tuesday, said the case contains misunderstandings.
In what was apparently the first e-mail to the rabbi, on the morning of Dec. 28, 2011, Nicholas Zemeitus, the 29-year-old alleged extortionist, demanded the rabbi read his message “very carefully.”
“It’s come to my attention that you have been doing some things that are harmful to some teenage boys and I have found that you have done this several times,” he wrote. “I am the older brother of a young boy you met recently.”
Zemeitus, writing to the rabbi’s e-mail address at the temple, said he had come across e-mails Starr exchanged with his brother while fixing the teen’s laptop, which he said included photographs of Starr engaged in sexual activity with the teen in the rabbi’s bedroom. He said his brother was younger than 18 years old.
“I went through theses [sic] e-mails and learned that you lure boys in with the promise of paying them a hundred bucks to let you proform [sic] various sex acts on them,” Zemeitus wrote. “That made me so upset and even sick to my stomach.”
Zemeitus said he learned that Starr was a high-profile rabbi, a man long revered in his community. “That’s when I was really shocked and blown away,” he wrote to Starr, recounting details from the rabbi’s publicly available biography, his wife’s name, and his home address and phone number.
Then he issued his threat: “If you do not follow my directions and do as I ask, I will bring all this info to the attention of not only the police and courts to have you prosecuted . . . I will also print out these e-mails and show them to everyone involved with your past . . . and everyone that you know from Sharon.”
He threatened to go to the media and added: “I will bring them and post them on the walls of your temple.”
Zemeitus insisted the rabbi respond immediately for directions about how “you can save yourself and make all this go away,” he wrote. “I will give you one chance to fix this.”
Less than three hours later, Starr wrote back. “Yes, I got your e-mail. I have never knowingly corresponded to any young boys under 18, but if that happened, it was not my intention. Tell me what I can do?”
Though Zemeitus has asserted in the e-mails that he is the brother of the teen allegedly involved with the rabbi, no independent confirmation of that assertion has emerged.
Thomas Hoopes, a Boston attorney representing Starr, described his 64-year-old client as a victim this week. He declined to comment Tuesday about the e-mail exchange.
At his home in Milton, Zemeitus would answer only a few questions. At first, he told a Globe reporter that he did not know Starr and said he did not have a younger brother. Then he said he once bought a cellphone from the rabbi.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding here,” he said, before closing the door.
In an e-mail sent Tuesday to congregants, Arnie Freedman, Temple Israel president, called the allegations about the rabbi “so painful and deeply upsetting.”
“At no point during my conversations with the rabbi did he tell me anything as to the nature of his relationship, which seems to be at the heart of all of this,” said Freedman, who referred the matter to attorneys and eventually law enforcement.
The Norfolk district attorney’s office is investigating the alleged extortion but declined to comment.
In court documents released Monday, Sharon detectives said the extortion allegations and assertions that checks to the rabbi from congregants were altered to increase their value supported potential larceny and forgery charges.
It was unclear whether Starr or Zemeitus, or both, could face charges.
While the rabbi ultimately acknowledged having an extramarital affair, Freedman in his Tuesday e-mail to congregants said Starr never disclosed the gender or age of the person. That assertion appeared to contradict documents released Monday in which a Sharon detective stated in a sworn statement that Freedman said the rabbi had a romantic relationship with a younger man.
“I know that no such information was passed along to investigators by anyone connected with Temple Israel and the court documents indicate that it came from the extortionist.”
He added: “As we search together for what to think and do, let us begin with how little we know, and the fact that the present public accounts are rife with discrepancies and inconsistencies. In terms of the accusations . . . we do know that the allegations come from a person of questionable character, who appears to have committed crimes in relation to these matters himself. Does that change the situation? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I don’t profess to know.”
In his answer to Starr’s e-mail in 2011, Zemeitus wrote a few minutes later: “You are gonna make a generous donation for his college tuition,” referring to the teen.
He told the rabbi to gather $13,500 in $100 bills and leave them in an unmarked manila envelope that evening in an undisclosed public place. He also told Starr that his godfather was a State Police detective and provided him information about the rabbi.
“Once I pick it up and confirm it’s all there, I will e-mail you one last time to tell you I deleted all e-mails and pictures at which point this will all go away,” he wrote.
He added: “This is your one and only chance and warming [sic] to seize [sic] all contact and harming underage children and suggest that you take this as a big wake up call.”
The next morning, the rabbi responded: “This is a great deal of money and it will take me some time to raise it. I know I screwed up but I need to put this behind me. And again I never did anything to underage boys but I suppose you don’t believe that.”
A few minutes later, Zemeitus wrote: “Don’t insult us further as you have done countless times.”
The rabbi’s response to that e-mail was not included in the court records. After apparently receiving an answer from the rabbi, Zemeitus told him to meet him at noon and asked whether he understood the directions.
“I will have the entire amount today,” the rabbi responded. “After you receive it, I expect that we are done with this as I am done with Craigs List [sic]. There will [sic] 13,500 in the envelope. I will not be able to e-mail you until I return home. You will take the money and delete the material you have.”
The threats and exchange of money, however, did not end until several weeks ago, after the rabbi sought and was denied a loan of $50,000 from Freedman, according to court records.